Every five years Republicans and Democrats somehow reach across-the-aisle — however farfetched this may seem — to reauthorize the gargantuan “farm bill.” The deadline to craft the latest version of this mammoth, multi-billion dollar farce-er-farm bill is September 30.
A new Congressional Budget Office report estimates the House-proposed 2018 farm bill, clocking in at 641 pages, will cost $868 billion over the next ten years. Like its 2014 predecessor, this year’s farm bill is a smorgasbord of farm subsidies, rural development, environmental conservation, and crop insurance. Fortunately, the infamous Obama-era Christmas Tree Promotion Board is unlikely to be reauthorized, but it appears Christmas will continue as scheduled — thank goodness.
The colloquially named farm bill conjures up visions of Uncle Sam helping small family farmers toiling in their fields with their non-GMO-fed animals grazing on wide, open pastures. Truth is, it could not be further from this idyllic scenario.
In reality, roughly 80 percent of the bill’s annual budget is earmarked for food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Most of the other 20 percent is dedicated to pork barrel spending and crony capitalism. The bill is rife with million-dollar subsidies for corporate farmers courtesy of the good old American taxpayers.
Apparently things haven’t changed all that much when one compares the current iteration of the farm bill to the first version, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which passed during the Great Depression under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The original, like the present, was chock-full-of wealth distribution and government goodies, such as subsidies to farmers for not growing crops and government purchases of livestock for slaughter.
Eighty-four years later, the farm bill has grown enormously in size and scope —so much so that it is a source of contentious debate between urban and rural lawmakers. For instance, SNAP, created during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society in 1964, initially appropriated $75 million in benefits to 350,000 Americans. Fifty-two years later, SNAP doled out benefits to approximately 44.2 million people at a cost of $70.9 billion to taxpayers. The United States is more prosperous and the standard of living has increased dramatically over the last five decades, yet government handouts for food has skyrocketed—what gives?
SNAP’s ballooning costs, coupled with a surging economy and record-low unemployment rate, has put the program under intense scrutiny from many who believe lax eligibility guidelines should be strengthened to increase self-reliance and decrease government dependence.
Fortunately, the proposed farm bill addresses this basic concern by streamlining and increasing work requirements on all able-bodied adults, except those who are pregnant or care for children under age six. The bill would mandate adults aged 18–59 work or participate in a job training program for at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits. Beginning in 2026, the work and job training requirements would increase to at least 25 hours a week. Currently, adults over age 50 and those who have a dependent child are exempt from work mandates.
So-called “lock-out provisions” would also be strengthened. For example, recipients who fail to meet work requirements one time would be ineligible to receive benefits for 12 months and then ineligible for 36 months for subsequent violations. The House estimates these reforms would affect between five million and seven million food stamp recipients and about one million of them would move off the program over a decade.
Of course, a law is only as good as its enforcement. The farm bill would remove existing loopholes states use to waive their residents from work requirements and revoke any states’ SNAP federal funds if they fail to comply with minimum service requirements. Right now, state officials can request these waivers from the federal government if they have an average unemployment rate above 10 percent or can demonstrate labor surplus.
There has been overuse of waivers that allow able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) to receive food stamps even without meeting basic work requirements. These waivers are especially inappropriate in an economy with 18-year low unemployment and strong gains in full-time job creation. Five states (Alabama, California, Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico) and the District of Columbia have active state-wide waivers for their ABAWD population. Another 28 states have partial waivers approved for ABAWDs residing in certain areas within their borders.
In typical fashion, several Democrats have lambasted the proposed farm bill, calling it “a cynical Trojan Horse” purposefully designed to inflict harm on vulnerable starving families. Wrong. Taxpayers are not ATM machines. Several states, including Alabama, Georgia, and Maine, have implemented SNAP reforms similar to those in the bill with great success. Requiring work or training as a condition of receiving welfare benefits encourages self-sufficiency and ensures SNAP and all other welfare programs are serving only those truly in need, without unnecessarily burdening American taxpayers.
Arianna Wilkerson is government relations coordinator at The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting limited government.